Augustana researcher awarded national grant to look at the role beavers play in flood events

Beavers and the dams they build are often believed responsible for flooding events. Professor Glynnis Hood’s new Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada funded research project will build a model to test the claim that beaver habitats lead to flooding.

Tia Lalani - 14 July 2020

When we think of flooding, the culprits that usually come to mind include excessive rainwater and other precipitation, climate change and issues with elevation and elevated water levels in lakes and rivers. But what impact do animals have on flood events? Specifically, animals who may have the ability to drastically alter the rivers they eat, sleep and build their homes—or dams—in? 

“Beavers often get blamed for flood events, especially the major ones,” says Professor Hood, who has been researching the semi-aquatic mammals for over 20 years. “Some believe that beaver dams store so much water that big rains add to the volume and cause flooding. Others say that beaver dams actually help hold back water that would have otherwise flooded property. You end up with this two-sided view of whether or not dams upstream are good, or if they’re creating even worse floods that you would have expected.”

These arguments were especially pronounced during the 2013 floods in Alberta, in which damage to agriculture, industry and residences was substantial. Knowing the causes of flooding, and what might mitigate damages, is key to both conservation efforts and ecological sustainability. 

Professor Hood’s research will build a risk-model of flooding in areas with elevation variability that are dominated by beavers and beaver-engineered landscapes. The project is intended to launch in the northern part of Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, although the COVID-19 pandemic may change these plans. Ultimately, though, the model will be applicable anywhere where water has the ability to run downhill, which includes various landscapes across Canada. 

“This research will hopefully provide a few more numerical answers to that debate so we have some evidence-based decision making,” says professor Hood. 

The project itself will span five years and will include various sub-projects that will employ undergraduate researchers, as well as masters and PhD students and a post-doctoral researcher. The sub-projects will also vary in discipline and type of research, including fieldwork studying the structure of various dams to desk work on data analysis combined with geographic information systems. 

“This will be the first model of its kind,” explains professor Hood. “It hasn’t been done before because getting a model out there that can actually run the extent of the different scenarios (including the number of dams in the system, type of precipitation in any given year, etc.) is quite difficult. The sub-projects will help with that.” 

Professor Hood also has another research project on the go that will involve a number of undergraduate student researchers, on the presence and interaction of semi-aquatic mammals in the Beaverhills Biosphere, an area north of Camrose that extends up to the northern part of Elk Island National Park. This project will use the emerging field of environmental DNA (eDNA) to detect animals like mink and river otters—who are much harder to spot than beavers and muskrats in their environments—by investigating water samples for fragments of their DNA, and then look at how aquatic connectivity might facilitate the interactions between these species. 

On top of these two projects, professor Hood also has an invited book with Johns Hopkins University Press, a leading US academic press, on the ecology and biology of semi-aquatic mammals due out in October. It is also notable that professor Hood is the first female scientist to receive a Natural Science and Engineering Council of Canada grant at Augustana, as well as the first in her field of study. 

“I am pleased to be the first ecologist to receive NSERC funding at Augustana, but I'm sure that I won't be the last,” professor Hood shared. “I’m very excited about increasing our understanding of how animals and the environment interact in really dramatic ways.”